Gulf/So. Atlantic Spiny Lobster & Stone Crab

Strong prices and Chinese live market spark hope for return to winning ways

After rare back-to-back winning seasons in both fisheries, the 2012-13 Florida stone crab and spiny lobster harvests were a huge disappointment.

Crab claw landings dropped from 2.95 million pounds the previous season to 1.99 million for 2012-13, and value dropped from $26.7 million to $21.1 million, according to preliminary Fish and Wildlife Research Institute numbers.

Spiny lobster landings dropped from 5.83 million pounds worth a record $39.1 million in 2011-12 to 4.03 million pounds worth $25 million in 2012-13.

Both sets of numbers are complete roughly through February, according to institute sources, and could be revised upward. Fishermen report that landings remained poor to the end of each fishery's season.

Lobster season runs Aug. 6 to March 31 of the following year, and stone crab runs Oct. 15 to May 15.

Anthony Hinkle, who fishes out of the small central Gulf Coast village of Cedar Key, says the stone crab cycle caught him off guard.

"It was pretty bad; we caught crabs at the beginning of the season, and then it just disappeared," he says. "By the time we realized what had happened, we had already burned up all our profits."

Conch Key fisherman Gary Nichols, a participant in both fisheries, says the lobster season "started out pretty decent" and then lost momentum thanks to, he thinks, a number of factors that might have affected both fisheries — water temperature, red tides, low oxygen issues and near-misses by tropical weather.

"We've had some water quality issues, some really warm water," he says. "The crabs, it's kind of dependent on the cold fronts. Nobody had a good crab season."

There are some encouraging factors looking ahead to the 2013 openings, however. One, price remained high in both fisheries, and this seems to be at least in part because of factors beyond the high price one would expect in low harvest years.

The Chinese live market's continued strength appears to be bolstering spiny lobster, especially. And the small harvests means there is no product left over to chill ex-vessel price at opening.

"No product at all in cold storage," says Nichols, a 40-year veteran of these fisheries.

For the claws and lobsters they did harvest, fishermen at times got the highest prices they've ever seen, topping more than $20 a pound for the biggest claws and $18 a pound for lobster.

"Crab never went down," Nichols says. Lobster dropped down from $18 to $10 a pound at the end, still a respectable price.

Looking ahead to the 2013 openings, stone crabbers are hoping for a more normal winter with the cold fronts and moderately rough water that seem to promote stone crab activity. They are also hoping crab-devouring octopi don't come back in the huge numbers observed in the Florida Keys and along the Gulf Coast.

As for spiny lobster, this fishery and its market are notoriously unpredictable, with harvests during the past five seasons ranging from 3.26 million to 5.99 million pounds and total harvest value ranging from $13.8 million to $39.1 million. During the same five seasons, average ex-vessel price has ranged from a low of $3.17 to a high of $6.71.

For the past three seasons, the Asian live market has lent more stability to the market, and that factor was a big help this year, says Vicki Gale, who works with her husband, Mitch, in Marathon in the Keys.

"Actually, that is what's keeping us all alive," she says. Fishermen have learned to take these swings in stride and keep fishing, Gale says.

"Even a bad day fishing is a good day, especially with the prices they were giving us around New Year's," she says.

Gale also points out one major problem Florida fishermen escaped during 2012. "Any year that there's no hurricane is a good one," she says. "We made a season out of it." — Hoyt Childers

Pacific Squid

Daily tracking update helps fast-paced California fishery lock down landings

California squid fishermen are optimistic that this season's harvest will approximate the abundance of recent years. Meanwhile, managers are working to track landings more precisely in the fast-paced fishery as the fleet nears its catch limit.

Since 2005, California's had a squid harvest limit of 118,000 short tons (107,049.6 metric tons) for the season, which normally runs from April through March of the next year. In recent years, the quota's been gobbled up quickly.

The 2010-11 take hit 125,000 metric tons when the fishery closed in mid-December 2010. And the 2011-12 harvest had exceeded 122,459.58 metric tons when it closed in mid-November 2011.

Market demand for exports — mainly to China — is still strong, and ocean conditions remain amenable to producing a plethora of squid. Hence, processors have geared up processing lines to handle around 5,000 short tons per day.

"Packing capacity used to be closer to 3,000 tons a day," says Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, in Buellton, Calif.

The fast landings pace, especially as the fleet nears its quota, makes it hard to hit the catch limit precisely, Pleschner-Steele adds. As the catch crept past 80,000 tons last season, Pleschner-Steele's organization called the boats and tracked what they had onboard each day.

She would then relay the numbers to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the fishery. Still, there is a lag time before all the squid are delivered and the hard numbers come in.
"It takes them about four days to close the fishery," says Pleschner-Steele.

Last season closed on the day before Thanksgiving 2012, she says. But this time when all deliveries were completed and fish ticket data rolled in, the preliminary catch total at the end of December was 107,242 short tons.

"What they thought they had and what they actually had was about 10,000 tons apart," she says.

This year, Pleschner-Steele says, the fleet's daily catches are being monitored from the start of the season. Doing so, she says, should produce a more accurate measure of how much quota remains on the table than the old method, which involved a periodic tallying of fish ticket info several times during the year.

"We just want to have an opportunity to harvest what's legally available," she says.

Larger squid continue to find favor with buyers in Japan and China. Though last year's harvest provided plenty of squid, average squid size left room for improvement, says Rick Mayer, general manager of the Marcus Food Co.'s fisheries division, in Camarillo, Calif.

"On some years, we try to stay away from anything higher than a 13 count, but an awful lot of what came in was over 13 count," Mayer says.

Fishing got off to an early start with several thousand tons delivered in Southern California, Mayer said in June. However, he said, it was too early to tell how this season might progress in terms of average size and abundance.

This year's ex-vessel prices started at $620 per ton. That's slightly higher than the $600 per ton that fishermen ended up with last season.

While export demand remains strong, NMFS foreign trade data shows export volume declined last year. The lower 2012-13 harvest volume caused the decline, Pleschner-Steele says.

In 2009, squid exports exceeded 70 million kilos valued at $94.5 million and rose to 118.3 million kilos worth $144.6 million in 2010. Exports to all countries peaked in 2011 at 130.02 million kilos worth $178.44 million. Last year, volume and values fell to 98.6 million kilos worth $143.3 million.

China, which took 66.68 million kilos worth $98.32 million in 2012, still dominates among countries claiming California squid. The Philippines, with 9.17 million kilos worth $13.81 million was second, and Japan, with 5.36 million worth $8.22 million, took third place. — Charlie Ess

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